Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Shock of Recognition

I'm currently doing some research assistant work. I've got 150 hours. What I have to do is speed read Australian biographies and record any references to reading. I started last week and since then I've read 5 books and am on my sixth. It's by Frank Hardy, The Hard Way, and it's his account of the writing of Power Without Glory and the court case that followed its publication in 1950.

I wont go into details of the case except to say that Hardy was charged with criminal libel not civil libel which meant he was liable to imprisonment and the book to suppression, as well as any damages. In the end he was successful but it was a quite a struggle. Hardy was a member of the Communist Party and 1950 was the year the Menzies tried to outlaw the the Party eventually going to a referendum which was lost.

Anyway at one stage of the court case, Hardy was denied bail and put into the City Watchhouse where he spent a couple of days. When he was brought there from the court which adjoined it he was put in the Watch House Yard. Here's his description:

The yard of the City Watchhouse is surrounded by brick walls rising forty feet high to shut out all kindness and all hope that shame might end. Curving above the walls is a roof of bars meshed with wire as though the authorities believe a miracle might lead some lost soul up the wall to the brink. The enclosure itself is perhaps thirty yards by twenty with a concrete floor. In its centre are two double-sided benches. In one corner is a stinking lavatory in which the sewer is out of order. The urinal, too, smelt foully and the yard seemed never swept. Bread crusts and scraps of paper strewed the floor and blocked the gully trap (67-8).

As I was reading it, the image of the yard filled my mind, including that wretched lavatory and urinal. Suddenly I realised, 'I've been there!' This was not imagination but memory, not suppressed but filed away. I was in that same yard 22 years later in 1972, not once but twice.

Back then I was an idealistic but closeted 20 year old. These were the days of the Vietnam War and, in Australia, conscription. There was a strong anti-conscription movement with a massive campaign of civil disobedience designed to make conscription unworkable. Central to the campaign was the refusal of young men to cooperate with the conscription process, to resist the draft. By 1972, there was a large number of young men, some in prison, some in hiding, others waiting for the law to move against them for refusing to participate in the call up process. The National Service law kicked in on males when they turned 20. 1972 was the year I turned 20 so I had begun my journey of draft resistance which I expected would lead me into a life underground in hiding unless there was a change of government at then end of the year (there was - the Whitlam gov't was elected in December 1972 and promptly began the dismantling of the conscription process and pardoning everyone who had broken those laws. I was in hiding, on that election day and had been for about a week).

I'd grown up through my teens under the shadow of conscription and I knew that I would face a confrontation with the power of the state. I knew that I would have no recourse but to defy the laws and risk the horrors of prison. Resisting the draft was a process comprising several stages all of which carried penalties for non-compliance, the final being 18 months gaol. As a cancer survivor I could have gotten a medical exemption as a couple of family members reminded me but it wasn't about avoiding conscription but ending it. So there was no way I was going to take advantage of my cancer.

While conscription was something only we young guys faced the law provided avenues for a wider range of people to participate in civil disobedience. In particular, it was against the law to encourage guys to break it by not co-operating with the process. Pamphlets were produced urging guys to resist the draft; distributing such pamphlets was regarded as an offence under the federal Crimes Act. So by 1972 it was usual to hold demonstrations against conscription in which people chose to give out such pamphlets and get arrested. That's what I did along with many others back then - we stood on the GPO steps in the Melbourne CBD with placards and banners and then one by one we'd each grab a handful of pamphlets and go down onto the foot path and give them. Of course there were coppers down there waiting for us, Commonwealth coppers not state police because this was federal criminal offence. So at two separate demos on those steps I took my handful of pamphlets and went down basically to the arms of the law. From memory the cops were in plainclothes. The moment I stepped off the stairs proffering a pamphlet I was arrested and led away to the paddy wagon. The second time it happened so quickly I had to yell out 'I've been arrested' just to make sure people knew the cops had me. Once the paddy wagon was full we were taken off to the Watch House and then put in that yard.

My memories of that place are vague. There were plenty of us so it was not as daunting as it might sound. The demos and my subsequent times in court stand out much more strongly in my mind. When I think about my court appearances I'm struck by how much I got away with because I turned both of them into political theatre. And I look back on myself then with great affection. How idealistic and how naive and how beautiful! I'm not going to write about the court appearances here. I will one day because I learnt a valuable lesson about how rotten our justice system can be. At least part of my theatre in my second court appearance was designed to expose how rotten and arbitrary the whole system actually was.

But for now it's my time in the Watch House that holds my attention. How strange that I could so forget my time in that place? I don't think I was there for more than a few hours, we were all bailed once the demo was over. I can't even remember who was there with me although I know one person was with me on one of those occasions because he and I worked together on the theatre of court - my second appearance. But I can only remember him in court, not in custody. Maybe because I was in my own private prison then, the closet, which I began to slowly push open later that year and finally kick that door down in early '73.

The only clear memory I have of that Watch House was that grotty lavatory that Hardy describes and the urinal too. It still smelt foul and I'm sure there were problems with the sewer when I was in that place too.

It's all a museum now and probably the place is kept cleaner and in better working order than ever it was when it was chocked full of prisoners.

And I still regard such places as abominations.

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